The best books on the refugee crisis precipitated by Germany's attack on Western Europe in WW2

Austin Denis Johnston Author Of 33 Days: A Memoir
By Austin Denis Johnston

Who am I?

Twenty years ago I nearly married a French woman and emigrated. I prepared vigorously to become an honorary Frenchman, cramming French history, language, and culture. Ultimately, I neither married nor emigrated, but the passion for that cultural acquisition project never left me, meaning many years of trips, reading, and language study. For the last decade, I've supplemented that interest by looking for historically significant French texts to translate (primarily contemporaneous texts about the World Wars and the interwar period). I have degrees in history and international affairs, plus professional experience in military affairs (including the Office of Secretary of Defense) and editing magazines (for Time, Inc.).


I wrote...

33 Days: A Memoir

By Leon Werth, Austin Denis Johnston (translator),

Book cover of 33 Days: A Memoir

What is my book about?

When Germany attacked westward in May 1940, eight million civilians fled their homes; Léon Werth was one of them. Air attacks and shortages of food, water, shelter, and medical care killed 100,000. When the six-week battle ended, nearly one in five people in France were displaced. The French call this refugee crisis l'Éxode (the exodus), reflecting its biblical proportions.

Werth was a famous novelist, journalist, and art critic—and a Jewish leftist. He was banned from publishing in France under Vichy race laws. His close friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince is dedicated to Werth) smuggled 33 Days out of France for publication in the West, but the manuscript was "lost" until 1992. Now Werth's book is in French high school's curriculum to preserve l'Éxode in national memory.

The books I picked & why

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Fleeing Hitler: France 1940

By Hanna Diamond,

Book cover of Fleeing Hitler: France 1940

Why this book?

The first book to read on this subject. An accessible, expert synthesis of refugee experiences based on many accounts, including interviews, but focused on eight that contain extensive, significant detail (all by Paris residents, Léon Werth among them). Diamond concludes that Philippe Pétain leveraged refugees' suffering to propagandize for military capitulation and the legitimacy of his regime.

Fleeing Hitler: France 1940

By Hanna Diamond,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fleeing Hitler as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wednesday 12th June 1940. The Times reported 'thousands upon thousands of Parisians leaving the capital by every possible means, preferring to abandon home and property rather than risk even temporary Nazi domination'.

As Hitler's victorious armies approached Paris, the French government abandoned the city and its people, leaving behind them an atmosphere of panic. Roads heading south filled with ordinary people fleeing for their lives with whatever personal possessions they could carry, often with no particular destination in mind. During the long, hard journey, this mass exodus of predominantly women, children, and the elderly, would face constant bombings, machine gun…


France Under Fire: German Invasion, Civilian Flight and Family Survival During World War II

By Nicole Dombrowski Risser,

Book cover of France Under Fire: German Invasion, Civilian Flight and Family Survival During World War II

Why this book?

A more specialized account focused on the role of women, who made up the vast majority of refugees, in petitioning government for civilian protection and assistance before and after the crisis, and their unique experiences on the road. Dombrowski Risser finds that women initiated an expansion of universal human rights in wartime to include refugees' rights. Her insightful and masterfully informed analysis of primary source materials—women's letters to government officials—brings them to life, adding illuminating, and heartrending, substance and texture.

France Under Fire: German Invasion, Civilian Flight and Family Survival During World War II

By Nicole Dombrowski Risser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked France Under Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'We request an immediate favour of you, to build a shelter for us women and small children, because we have absolutely no place to take refuge and we are terrified!' This French mother's petition sent to her mayor on the eve of Germany's 1940 invasion of France reveals civilians' security concerns unleashed by the Blitzkrieg fighting tactics of World War II. Unprepared for air warfare's assault on civilian psyches, French planners were among the first in history to respond to civilian security challenges posed by aerial bombardment. France under Fire offers a social, political and military examination of the origins…


Suite Française

By Irene Nemirovsky,

Book cover of Suite Française

Why this book?

Part I ("Storm in June") of Némirovsky's unfinished masterwork novel is a contemporaneously written, nearly comprehensive representation of refugees' experience on the road, though a fictionalized one. But its main subtext—that to many refugees the crisis seemed to portend civilizational collapse—is not fiction.

Suite Française

By Irene Nemirovsky,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Suite Française as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1941, Irene Nemirovsky sat down to write a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was living through, not in terms of battles and politicians, but by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. She did not live to see her ambition fulfilled, or to know that sixty-five years later, "Suite Francaise" would be published for the first time, and hailed as a masterpiece. Set during a year that begins with France's fall to the Nazis in June 1940 and ends with Germany turning its attention to Russia, "Suite Francaise" falls…


The Fall of Paris: June 1940

By Herbert R. Lottman,

Book cover of The Fall of Paris: June 1940

Why this book?

The fall of France is essential historical context for the refugee crisis, and this book is "history with a flair." Focused on Paris—through which millions of refugees were routed and from which two million embarked—Lottman weaves micro-histories (think Eduardo Galeano), culled from an encyclopedic range of accounts, into a panoramic, propulsive day-by-day narrative that prominently features the refugee crisis. A compelling read.

The Fall of Paris: June 1940

By Herbert R. Lottman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fall of Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A dramatic chronicle of the fall of one of the world's great cities covers the five weeks leading up to the German capture of Paris in 1940


The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940

By Julian Jackson,

Book cover of The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940

Why this book?

Also for historical context, this is a more traditionally constructed history—though also a masterful synthesis of sources—and among those that view the refugee crisis as having a role in France's defeat. Clear, concise and comprehensive; if you read one book about the fall of France, read this.

The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940

By Julian Jackson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fall of France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 16 May 1940 an emergency meeting of the French High Command was called at the Quai d'Orsay in Paris. The German army had broken through the French lines on the River Meuse at Sedan and elsewhere, only five days after launching their attack. Churchill, who had been telephoned by Prime Minister Reynaud the previous evening to be told that the French were beaten, rushed to Paris to meet the French leaders. The mood in the meeting was one of panic and despair; there
was talk of evacuating Paris. Churchill asked Gamelin, the French Commander in Chief, 'Where is the…


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